Archive for June, 2008

23
Jun
08

Bigger papers. Better websites?

A while back I ran across an article that ranked the web sites of the top 25 US newspapers according to their print circulation. While there is loads of stuff about online rankings of news sites, this caught my attention because it claims to examine a fundamental divide. What works (or worked) in print, does not always work online. Most ranking stories and sites look at online sites based purely on their internet performance. Most print rankings deal exclusively with revenue or profit or paid circulation. This business/investment site looked at how the biggest newspapers (in terms of print circulation) were doing online as a way to advise investors about the future of newspapers.

What did they find?
• “… how uneven the quality is from property to property.” In other words, bigger papers don’t always have better web sites.
• “
Some of the smaller papers which probably have
modest resources have done an extremely good job of engaging readers,
using the best tools of the internet, and putting up content which adds
to the experience of the subscriber to the physical newspaper.”
• “
Other sites seem to be designed to keep readers away.”
The final judgment of a newspaper’s online edition
is whether, using the advantages of the internet, is it better than the
paper itself. As one industry expert told 24/7, “The strength of a
newspaper web site is its ability to present almost endless
information, far more than it could ever afford to print. The best
newspapers take advantage of this by explaining in their print editions
where additional information on a particular subject can be found —
the full text of a speech or a court document, for instance.”

A couple of caveats. The web site doing these rankings looks lousy. It is a glorified blog. I give credence to their evaluations because I know some of the web sites listed and agree with how they see them. Besides, as I often say, Google should have taught us that looks on their own mean nothing in the web world. Also, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal are not included in these evaluations. Read their article for why.

What do I want to do? Periodically take a look at the listed newspapers and dig a little deeper than the folks at Wall St. 24/7. We will begin with those receiving the lowest grades.

The Sacramento Bee received a D- from the folks at WS24/7. They dinged it heavily for having little news on the homepage, poor use of interactives and multimedia, and very little organization of local news. I don’t know when sacbee .com had its last re-design, but  some of the criticism does appear justified. But not all.

A tabbed window dominates their home page. It has tabs for Top Stories, Local, Breaking News, Sports and Politics. some of those tabs contain very little. At noon on a  Monday there are only three entries. First was an updated weather story from the previous day, second was three sentences on an over-night accident, third was the results from a weekend NASCAR race. Top stories had nine entries, with a mix of Bee and wire material. A customize feature allows adding or subtracting tabs, but the RSS feed for the page appears to be just a single, generalized feed. Users can also register, which allows them to select email newsletters of Sacbee content they wish to receive. The latter seems to be their mobile strategy.

Tabs at the top of the page allow readers to drill down to more focused content. For instance, rolling over the sports tabs drops down a menu for direct access to sections on each team (professional and semi-pro, plus preps) covered by the paper, as well as blogs and columnists. However, there is very little content at many of these sites and none are stand-alone or even intuitive. The San Francisco Giants site has a game preview and game recap for the previous day. that’s it. No rosters, no ongoing schedule, no fan blogs. And to get there you go to sacbee.com/879. Who wouldn’t remember that? The preps section has a bit more, but precious little that would bring me back to any of this. The multimedia section is an undifferentiated collection of videos done in partnership with ABC News10.

Is it the worst newspaper site I have ever seen? Probably not. However, it is pretty unspectacular. And that isn’t good given the decline of printed newspapers in Sacramento and elsewhere appears to be accelerating.

Next week we’ll look at the D’s.

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17
Jun
08

I have to take AP

AP lit a fire the other day by sending take down notices to some bloggers. They said quoting AP at all (essentially) constitutes copyright infringement which could bring a lawsuit if the quotes were not removed immediately. Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine rightly ripped them a new one, prompting some explanatory crap from Jim Kennedy, head of strategy for AP. He said they were working things out with the blogs in question and all anybody wanted was fairness in the fair use (some would assume that to mean cite AP in link with the quote). Apparently not so.

In a New York Times story on Monday, Kennedy says: “Cutting and pasting a lot of content into a blog is not what we want to see,” he said. “It is more consistent with the spirit of the Internet to link to content so people can read the whole thing in context.”

He added that AP is standing behind the take-down notices sent last week.

This sounds more and more like the hare-brained and eventually unproductive business strategies pursued by the MPAA and RIAA. Rather than trying to reinvent their business to allow and possibly profit from new technology, they use the courts to try and control content and fight the future.

As I said before: AP has talked fairness for years and never done it when asked to by their customers and clients. Now they are trying to force ridiculous guidelines, that serve only the AP (but not well), onto the internet. Many of their traditional customers/suppliers already hate them. Now they have that same goal in mnd with a new audience. Now that’s a long-term business strategy.

Drop me a line if it works out.

17
Jun
08

Where do they go from here?

Only a few days ago online newspaper guru Rob Curley announced he was departing the Washington Post company’s WPNI to take up residence at The Las Vegas Sun. This would be interesting enough to those of us watching with hope and fear what happens to newspapers online. What will Curley, who has arguably been successful at every stop on his newspaper journey, bring to The Sun and, possibly, the many other properties of the Greenspun Media Group.

Don’t go looking at this like the savior coming to Sin City. The LV Sun already has what many consider a top-notch web site. Less than a month ago the site won the EPPY (Editor & PUblisher award) for “Best Overall Newspaper-Affiliated Web Site” with fewer than 1 million unique monthly visitors. The New York Times won the same award for newspapers with more than 1 million unique monthly visitors. The Sun’s recognition came only four months after launching its revamped news portal.

Curley played some role in the redesign. He recommended and used to work with the online editor who took over right before the re-vamping.

According to his blog, Curley was asked to recommend someone for what they were planning at The Sun. “I didn’t even have to think about it. I told them they should hire Dave Toplikar immediately. Dave was the long-time online managing editor at The Lawrence Journal-World before I got there, including being our sites’ top editor for the three years while I was in Lawrence.”

In fact, Curley appears to have recommended most of the new hires for the Sun’s new media team. Now that he has joined them it should be interesting to see what happens. Which makes this a great time to take a look at what is going on at The LV Sun web site.

However, all of this doesn’t necessarily mean there are lessons for us all in the LV Sun site. The reason for that lies in the story of the newspaper.

The LV Sun is in the third year of a JOA (joint operating agreement) with its larger rival, The Las Vegas Review-Journal. The rather odd arrangement has The Sun maintaining separate staff and content, but being delivered with the LVRJ. In order to make this work, The LV Sun has almost no “traditional” news and zero advertising. It serves as a sort of daily news magazine for the city of Las Vegas, with long, in-depth articles that lean more toward analysis.

The good of this is that the LV Sun is much freer to experiment than a paper that has to cost justify what it does. The bad is that is no business model from which others can glean clues about what may work in the online environment.

What about the web site, which comes off as almost an after-thought amidst all of the rest? It’s pretty, but probably not something that will change online newspapering as we know it.

It is clean, well-organized, and visually interesting. It is 100 percent local — you will have to drill down a ways for anything state, regional, national or beyond. It boasts lots of widets to elevate blogs and stories, a few tools to fuel reader interaction and great use of color. What’s more it has tons of useful evergreen stuff (Vegas History and Moving In, as two prime examples), and an easy to navigate multimedia section.

On the other hand, it isn’t a news site and Google is living proof that nice design means diddly online.

What may be brightest about the site, if it is true, is the statement from New Media Managing Editor Toplikar that the Web site is the result of a cooperative attitude between the Sun’s newsroom and the new media team. I’ve heard that before but never really seen it. Such a team approach is crucial to online success yet seldom occurs.

I am waiting to see what Curley will do there. The site isn’t shabby now, he has demonstrated some leadership ability in the past, and he is joining what may be the dreamiest team of his career. It’s a strong start — but where do they go from here?

14
Jun
08

I have met the enemy … you know the rest

Seems AP is taking a page from the RIAA in challenging web sites that excerpt their articles. They are filing take down notices with blog sites they deem to be violating their copyright. Naturally, many bloggers are up in arms. There are a couple of issues here for me, not the least of which is the concept of an old-style media business trying to fight the future by trying to prevent it from happening. But first, a couple of stories.

Almost every day, during my years as a reporter, I or one of my colleagues were asked to do a “localization.” That meant we would take a national story that indicated a trend and get a local angle on it. Most often, that national slant came via an AP article. Sometimes we didn’t cite AP at all, but I guess that was OK because we were subscribers. I hated doing stories like this.

During my days as a photo editor I was party to a different AP practice. We would frequently be called and asked to provide a photo to AP, often at the request of another member newspaper. We knew that other member was most often a nearby competitor and we seeded our photos with outs to indicate such nearby rags were NOT permitted to use our work. Heck, if they wanted photos they could have sent their own people. But an AP editor would call one of our top editors and then we would be told to cough up the picture(s). When we complained because the competing newspaper hijacked our image, AP told us they couldn’t do anything. When we complained because the picture carried an AP credit, they said: tough. You see, AP has a policy of replacing the credit on every image it sends across the wires with its own. That isn’t a copyright violation, apparently, because we are subscribers and the contract compels us to regularly drop trou and grab our ankles at the Associated Press’ request.

Long story short, borrowing without credit is a typical newspaper/AP business practice. Which makes their complaint more than a little hypocritical.

But their position is also idiotic. Quoting an AP article can help bring an audience to AP. Slapping down those who draw attention to AP won’t help bring an audience (at least a happy one) to AP. Given the place old-style organizations like AP are currently occupying, chasing away an audience doesn’t seem prudent.

But as Jeff Jarvis points out, the whole concept of AP may have passed it usefulness. In the old days AP was the distribution network for articles. Sure they wrote some of their own, but most of their business was passing articles around from member newspapers. That they took credit for them even though they didn’t create them wasn’t considered a big deal because otherwise none of us could get those articles to fill our pages.

Today the internet not only does that distribution job better, it can allow users to go to the source rather than accept a bastardized and borrowed AP version. Jarvis rightly says it is always better to go to the source. And with the internet anyone can set up a network that allows sharing of those articles that come directly from the source.

AP apparently doesn’t get it. They seem intent on gouging our their eyes and cutting off their tongue in the hope of saving face. Good luck with that. And good riddance.

12
Jun
08

The next big thing

About 65 million years ago, scientists conjecture, an asteroid or fragments of one, struck the earth. That strike may have caused world-wide firestorms, earthquakes, tidal waves, massive flooding and a host of other catastrophic events. It is surmised that this event likewise put huge amounts of dust into the atmosphere, which reduced sunlight, which killed plants, killing the animals that ate those plants and the animals who ate those plant-eating animals.

This little incident likely led to the extinction of dinosaurs. Many — perhaps most — would have died in the cataclysms related to the initial strike. But some would have lived on for awhile until their food sources died off (both herbivores and the carnivores that eat them require healthy plants to survive).

I wonder if, after the earth shook and the sky caught fire, the surviving dinosaurs stood around and asked: “What’s the next big thing?”

The other night I was in a bar for a party. Some nice young ladies who are practicing journalism began conversing with me. We, of course, discussed the sad state of our industry and how the internet is related. I had already been into the beer and, as a middle-aged geek, I am not used to talking to nice-looking younger people, so I began to wax philosophic about all of the factors at play in our current situation. One of the young ladies then asked me: “What’s the next big thing.”

I paused for a moment and struggled with the irrational desire to say: “We all die, of course.”

The still rational part of me knew that wasn’t entirely true. But another part of me wondered how much like the dinosaurs we journalism types may be as we admire the really nice sunsets and discuss the big boom from a few years back, all the while failing to realize we are living in the midst of an extinction-level event.

Truth is that many doing journalism now will survive, like the hardy and adaptable mammals that survived the K-T Extinction Event. It is the newspapers and, especially, the major corporate, publicly traded dinosaurs that will eventually die. Their demise will come, at least in part, because they believed themselves invulnerable, and partly because they have been too slow to change. But the internet has hit the publishing industry like a massive asteroid. Asking what comes after these days elicits, from many, something like an hysterical giggle.

Still, it is an appropriate question: What does come next? What is the next big thing? Will any of it save our industry, our newspapers, our jobs? What will be, to paraphrase Anne Murray, our morning after?

I have some thoughts on this. But I’ll get to them later.

06
Jun
08

Why LoudonExtra failed

Don’t know if I said this before, but I’m a big fan of Rob Curley. Curley is the online newspaper guru who blazed a path of success from Lawrence, KS to Naples, FL to Washington, D.C. I heard Curley speak once and walked away galvanized about what we should be doing at my place to improve our presence on the web.

I was convinced that if anyone knew what newspapers should be doing online it was Curley.

It came as a surprise last week when I read on Curley’s blog that he was leaving his position as vice president of product development at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, the subsidiary that oversees the company’s Internet operations. Shocking was the article Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal announcing that Curley’s chief project at The Post company, LoudonExtra.com, has been a flop.

How could a guy like Curley fail at something so important to the newspaper industry? I have a theory, but we’ll get to that later.

LoudonExtra was supposed to be the hyperlocal site that achieved all the promise of hyperlocal. Databased to beat the band with everything from little league schedules to church programs, it was supposed to draw audience and advertisers from the affluent D.C. suburb.

For those who don’t know, hyperlocal promises newspapers the hope for a profitable future. In the words of the WSJ:

Like hundreds of other hyperlocal sites launched in the past few years, LoudounExtra.com reflects a basic premise: Metro newspapers probably can’t compete with the Internet or cable TV in covering breaking national and international news, but they can dominate what happens in their backyards.

What happened? LoudonExtra never found an audience. In the WSJ article Curley accepts plenty of blame for the site’s failings, but he also hints that there might have been problems outside his control.

LoudonExtra was supposed to be an independent site, something many advocate for online newspapers. Rather than try to keep everything under a single umbrella, spin out sites targeted at specific audiences. That makes it easy to target both the content and the ads. But apparently, there was conflict at the Post over whether major stories — such as AOL moving from Dulles, VA to New York — should live on the Loundon pages or at the Post. The story’s home would affect hit count, but many readers wouldn’t be the Loudon target audience even though Dulles is in Loudon.

The AOL conundrum seems slightly silly, at least on the face of things, in the internet age. Why not have the story live both at LoudonExtra and on WashingtonPost.com? Because of old school newspaper thinking. LoudonExtra, it seems, is just a section of the Post (check the URL). You wouldn’t want to duplicate stories across sections in a printed pub, right? But, in fact, LoudonExtra only works as an independent site, which means the AOL story could and should have lived happily there regardless of how or where it was placed in the printed Post or its online edition.

But that’s just a detail. I think LoudonExtra failed to catch fire because of something far more fundamental. The WSJ story hints at the problem.

“Another problem: Mr. Curley’s crew was trying to reach a much different audience than they were used to. Unlike Lawrence, Kan., which had a small populace linked by an easily identifiable set of interests, Loudoun County is a 520 square-mile area with seven towns whose residents share little else besides a county government.”

LoudonExtra has failed to find an audience because Loudon County isn’t a community to anyone other than editors and executives at The Washington Post company. It has many towns, incorpoarted and unincorporated. It has areas that are nearly urbanized, massive bedroom communities (I visited one where nearly 10,000 homes sprang up in a single subdivision in only a couple of years), sprawling farms, small towns, and old time residents sitting cheek-by-jowl with recent cousins whom they are in no mood to kiss.

The reality is that while a county may work perfectly in the zoned distribution system of a printed paper, it makes absolutely no sense (on its own) for an online community.

How do you define an online community? That’s the secret — you don’t. The community defines itself by the interests, wants and needs of the people who are in it. The smart web person (perhaps the next Google guys) will figure out how to let communities define themselves in more comprehensive ways than blogs for information consumption and distribution (aka publishing).

But the bottom line in the web world, which is much more like the real world than newspapers can comprehend, is that there can be communities within communities, groups that overlap in one area and are utterly divergent in another. Telling people who live within artificial borders that they must be lumped together only makes sense to those still trying to force the world into a newsprint mold.

I’ve said it before: I’m not a genius (I’ve met some and it really drives that point home). I can’t tell how to sort all this out or what (if anything) will eventually work for newspapers in this brave new world. But I’m pretty sure it is impossible to approach hyperlocal with the cookie-cutter approach of LoudonExtra.

But according to the WSJ, The Post is still intent on launching a FairfaxExtra site. I’m going to go out on a limb right now and predict it will be no more successful than Loudon. I would be happy to be wrong. My future mortgage payments may depend on it. But Fairfax County, VA probably can’t be homogenized any easier than Loudon.

BTW, Curley and most of his crew have taken up residence at The Las Vegas Sun. I’m interested to see what they do there. That web site is already darn good and I may post about that on Monday (part of a recurring look at newspaper sites that are successful or not). But I wish Curley good luck there. All of us in the newspaper business could use a bit of that.

06
Jun
08

I have met the enemy and he is me – pt. 2

In the old newspaper world readers lived in cages. Every day someone would slide a variety of food through a slot and they, those rather domesticated readers, could take from it what they wanted. Usually there was a bit of meat, a few potatoes, veggies for those who liked that stuff, a few sweets, and a lot of fluff. Take what you want, leave the rest.

Me, I read the newspaper cover-to-cover every day. I discovered worlds I never knew or even imagined in the nooks and crannies of that newspaper. But I was fairly unusual. Most people discarded 80-90 percent of the newspaper every day. Some were simply carnivores; they only wanted sports scores or stock tables. Some were just vegetarians, so they had a bit of world news before seeing what they could glean from the living section. Some just liked sweets, so they stuck to the entertainment section and lived for the comics. Those who who thrived on fluff just wanted the ads. The cross-over was small in those different groups.

But that was OK. What choice did they have? Unless they were willing to buy the New York Times at a news stand, they took what news nutrition they could from the local paper. Sure they could wait for Time or Newsweek, but those were for analysis (roughage?) — not news. Yeah, there was nightly television, but that required one to be in front of that TV at a specific hour and then you only got what the networks decided were the top stories of the day. TV has always been something akin to a liquid diet. Pureed news. You wanted movie reviews, stories about musicians, an early morning chuckle? Chances are you needed the paper. You lived for classifieds or coupons, there was no way to get that fix without buying your daily dose of pulped wood.

Choices were limited. For the voracious consumers of information, like me, you took what you could get and you chewed it down to the bone. Everyone else fumed over how little of what they really wanted could be found within the dirty pages of the local rag.

Today’s readers are not prisoners. They live in a vast information landscape. It isn’t just a Serengeti, there are huge grasslands, mammoth hunting preserves, candy mountains that dwarf Everest, veritable forests of fluff that can be sorted and sifted to one’s hearts desire, and waterholes of every ilk dotting every environment. Few have time for foraging amidst all this bounty. Most gravitate towards the information habitat that come closest to providing them what they want or need. And they populate the water-holes most traveled by those closest akin to their kind. They now live in an all-you-can-eat world and the only price is their time and patience.

While the printed product does not easily translate to this new freedom, except perhaps as a sort of daily map, the digital versions of newspapers need not be limited by that ink-on-paper motif. They could be whatever they want to be — whatever they need to be. So why do they insist on trying to force their online products almost exclusively into that old mold? Newspaper people have made a living for centuries off of surfing cultural trends, so how come they can’t see that the cage doors are open and the animals roaming free? In fact, the cages have been torn down entirely and the animals are headed off toward the raw food sources of their choice. Some newspaper sites look like they are being run by Laurel & Hardy. They’re still trying to figure out why the lock doesn’t work anymore.

It isn’t that there is no longer a market for the processed and prepared food newspapers have been providing. It is largely that people want only the type of nutrition closest to their needs or desires and, they would like to participate in the preparation. Had newspapers recognized this five years ago there might not be quite so much hand-wringing over red ink these days. Sure things would probably still be less rosy than the good old days of endless 30 percent profit margins — hey when the animals are caged you can feed ‘em what you want and charge whatever they are willing to pay. But newspaper executives might see a future that didn’t involve so much blood being spilt.

Today, newspapers are beginning to recognize that everything has changed and they need to adapt or die. Some newspaper leaders are starting to realize that they have seen the killer of their industry every morning in the mirror. I have met the enemy and he is me.

Now, what am I going to do about it?